Richard Kahlenberg in the NYTimes:
Parental involvement in education is both critical for students and unequally distributed, with upper-middle class parents much more likely to be engaged. There are, however, important steps that policy makers can take to ensure that students in all schools have champions for higher standards and strong teaching.
Lower-income parents can't get involved as easily. An economic mix gets active parents lobbying for excellence in every school.
Parents are the key to improving education in two senses. First, parents are the primary educators of students; the family is the first and most important school house. This explains why 50 years of research has consistently found that the socioeconomic status of a child's parents -- not the elementary or secondary school he attends -- is the number one predictor of his academic success.
Second, parents can agitate for stronger K-12 schooling, but once again, low-income students are disadvantaged. Middle-class parents are twice as likely to volunteer in class and four times as likely to be members of the PTA as low-income parents. These more affluent parents push for higher expectations among teachers and a challenging curriculum. This helps explain why the grade of "A" in a high poverty school is the equivalent of the grade of "C" in a middle-class school when students are compared on standardized tests.
Efforts to boost parental involvement among low-income parents have often proven disappointing not because they are apathetic but because they are constrained by time and money. If low-income parents are working three jobs, have little flexibility in the hours they work, and do not have a car, it is little wonder that they can't attend back-to-school night. Besides, no child picks his parents, so we don't want to punish kids for having parents who may be unable or unwilling to be actively involved in school affairs.
So what is to be done? The best solution is to make sure there are pushy middle-class parents in every public school. These parents have the time and resources to be involved in school affairs, and they know how to pull the levers of power to raise standards, and to push out mediocre teachers. They can fight for all kids in a school, whether rich or poor. More than 80 school districts across the country have sought to ensure an economic mix in their schools, in part because it's good to have active parents lobbying for excellence in every school.
In La Crosse, Wisc., for example, middle-class families were redistricted into a mostly blue collar high school and the new parents immediately began demanding high standards and AP classes. Nationally, low-income students who get to attend more affluent schools where parents advocate for excellence are two years ahead of low-income students stuck in high poverty schools. We will never get every parent to read to his or her child at night, but we can take steps to reduce economic segregation in our public schools so every school has strong parental advocates for high standards.